Shackleton’s Amazing Leadership

Every so often, a story emerges that just captivates the imagination for its incredible un-believability. One such story is Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing, which I first read some 10 years ago. It captivated me then as it did on my recent re-reading.

The story starts in England, where Polar explorer Ernest Shackleton is recruiting a crew to sail with him to the South Pole. By then, fabled British explorer Robert F. Scott had already perished with four of his colleagues in their attempt to be the first to reach it. Yes, such exploration was serious business. Lansing recounts that this is the classified ad Shackleton ran in London newspapers:


Kind of makes you wonder what kind of people would sign up based on that rosy depiction doesn’t it? In retrospect, they were precisely the right kind. The ship was named ENDURANCE, after the leader’s family motto “by Endurance we conquer.” I am sure Shackleton had no idea how prophetic that name would be.

The expedition would ultimately last nearly 25 months. For 19 of those months the crew would be trapped on the Arctic ice, hanging on to the slimmest chances for survival. Here is a brief Chronology of the Major Events during 1914-1916 Shackleton Expedition (A more detailed account follows on the map of the journey):

  • August 8, 1914: The Endurance sails from England. Spirits are high.
  • October 27, 1915: After nine long months trapped in the ice, the extreme pressures of the ice pack are more than the ship can handle. Endurance is crushed. The crew is in darkness, hearing water rushing in as they scramble out onto the ice. They are able to salvage some supplies and 3 tiny lifeboats as they abandoned ship and take up life on the foreboding ice. They are now even more alone, cold, without significant protection from the elements. Morale drops to a new low. Eventually, the crushed Endurance sinks, leaving the crew utterly alone with no hope of rescue or even communication with the outside world. Food is scarce. Eventually, they make it to Elephant Island.
  • April 24–May 10, 1916: Elephant Island may be dry, but it is frozen and without life to sustain them and away from any normal maritime routes. So, Shackleton decides to lead a small group of six who set off in the James Caird (one of the lifeboats) on a highly risky 800 mile journey in open sea. They are heading into a hurricane they had no way to know was coming. But they know that they must reach civilization if they are to survive. They also know that their navigation in that tiny boat over that great distance must be deadly accurate if they hope to reach South Georgia Island from whence they started in 1914. The storms take everything out of them, but they land (barely) on the opposite side of the island from the whaling station.
  • August 30, 1916: Shackleton secures a steam ship and is finally able to rescue the remainder of the crew he left behind 3 months earlier on Elephant Island. Not a single one of his 28 man crew dies throughout the entire ordeal.


So what do we learn from Shackleton?

Amazing Versatility, for one. You can imagine they trained extensively for the intended mission – a run to the South Pole. But once things went wrong, he knew survival dictated a shift in focus – at least two major shifts in mission as conditions went from bad to worse. He re-plans, and refocuses as needed in response to what he is facing.

Cool Objectivity. Once the initial mission was abandoned, he quickly and realistically assesses his new reality. He is prompt to recognize that idleness is a huge threat to crew discipline and morale. He responds by creating a new rigorous daily routine (even though we can imagine many might have asked “what’s the point?”).

Brave Front. He always projects confidence and hope when in front of the men. Several of his crew remark about this after their rescue. This seems remarkable given the circumstances. However he did leave a diary in which you see the insecurities and fears emerge. In one passage, he wrote “A man must shape himself to a new mark directly as the old one goes to ground,” he wrote. “I pray God, I can manage to get the whole party to civilization.” One difficult leadership lesson, it seems to me is that we have to feed not only the team in our charge, but we must also feed ourselves so we may remain strong in difficult circumstances. Shackleton found a way to do this.

Forward Looking. Even when the crew finally set foot on Elephant Island, Shackleton knew that this was not the ultimate solution for them. While the others took time to revel in what they had accomplished, survival was not then assured. He immediately set his attention to the next stage in the adventure – to attempt to sail in a 22 foot lifeboat to South Georgia. It took three different attempts before he could break through the pack ice around Elephant Island and make it to open ocean. He never lost site of the mission – returning his crew to civilization.

Unshakeable Faith. No matter what inner demons Shackleton considered in his private moments, he seemed to dedicate himself fully to the best interests of his crew. The crew seemed to instinctively know that their “boss” was there for them no matter what. Even when some considered mutiny, Shackleton was willing to do whatever was necessary to assure the stability of the crew.

I highly encourage you to read the book and reflect on what it must have been like. Ask yourself if you could have endured? How would you have led?



Filed under Leading, Managing Teams, Personal Leadership, Strategy

2 responses to “Shackleton’s Amazing Leadership

  1. Pingback: Chess games of the rich and famous: Aboard the Endurance, trapped in ice « Millard Fillmore's Bathtub

  2. Pingback: Books- That remind me that I’m a wimp « standup2p

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